For the best part of two weeks I have been in the North of England. The same North which, with the dishonourable exception of Manchester, has not been hit by the deeply depressing 'riots' which have scarred many other towns and cities. Worst hit is my adopted home of London. It has been a disturbing feeling, sat a few hundred miles away, to see such havoc and destruction wreaked on places I know so well. Like hearing of an old, loved friend destroying themselves with liquor or drugs.
Because that has been the most disquieting aspect of the past week. The sheer nihilism involved. People so disconnected from their own communities and neighbours that they would destroy their houses and livelihoods and sully the streets in which they live. And for what? Some great injustice, or powerful cause? No. To get hold of a flatscreen television or some other commodity they have coveted but can't afford. Or simply the sheer wanton thrill of destruction. The only connecting belief was opportunism. A chance to cause trouble, to lash out. There was no grand plan or grand statement here.
Why? People have asked. And boy, have they asked it. Those on the right think the rioters are creations of the liberal welfare state, which has created a dependent underclass unwilling to work, who live off benefits and have grown up in broken families with a broken sense of morality (encouraged by liberal thinking and permissiveness naturally). Meanwhile, the left think we are reaping what we have sown during three decades of naked consumerism, which has sprouted a seething, envious underclass who have no chance or opportunity to partake in the orgy of wealth created for the fortunate few. These are Blair's Children, say the right. No, they are Thatcher's grandchildren, say the left. The right claim that trying to explain such pure criminality in some way excuses it. Bring back the birch and National Service. The left wonder how, if you don't try to understand what created such nihilism, you can tackle it and prevent it happening again. Arm the police, say some on the right, and give the rioters a taste of some proper medicine. It was armed police that caused the whole problem in the first place say some on the left (the riots kicked off last Thursday after the shooting of a man in Tottenham by police.)
The arguments have been as depressing as the riots. And, in the rush to excuse or blame, a few things have been forgotten. Not least that when it comes to preaching about 'proper' and 'moral behaviour' our leaders and our establishment have no right whatsoever to talk. Maybe, just maybe, the underclass created by three decades of naked, rapacious capitalism (I'm in the Thatcher's grandchildren camp when push comes to shove. The mad old bat once said there was no such thing as society. What could have proved her point so adroitly as a gang of designer goods thieving youths smashing up their own societies, or what's left of them?) have looked at their rulers and the society in which they live and thought, 'Balls to this.' Not in any coherent, planned way. But given the opportunity and means to raise hell, they looked around, saw a society in which no one takes any responsibility anymore, and thought, 'Why shouldn't I?'
To start from the top. Our own Prime Minister, Eton-educated, of rich, landed stock, who only today had the cheek and nerve to talk about the rioters and their sense of entitlement. A man who is only in the position he is, not because of any talent or acumen, but because of what he was born into and the privileges it has granted him. A man who, along with clownish and wretched Mayor of London Boris Johnson, was a member of an elite society of rich students at Oxford called the Bullingdon Club whose idea of weekly entertainment was to to go to a restaurant and bar, hire a private dining room, proceed to get as pissed as rats and then smash the whole place up. The only difference from the rioters being that the next morning they had the means to write the poor, bewildered restaurant owners a cheque to pay for the damage.
Then we have MPs, who today stood up in their scores in Parliament to denounce the rioters for their greed and avarice, for wanting something for nothing. The same MPs who only a a few years ago were caught en masse systematically fiddling their own expenses. Take Michael Gove, the emollient education secretary who was on TV the other night in apoplexy about the rioters and their greed, who helped himself to £7000 of taxpayers money to which he wasn't entitled. Or Gerald Kaufman, a Labour MP, who got an £8000, wait for it, flatscreen TV paid for by the taxpayer. These are just two random choices. There were many more sordid examples: MPs, and their sense of entitlement, helping themselves to cash and goods at the expense of the people who elected them, and had been doing it for years.
But what about the journalists and newspapers fulminating about these lazy, indolent, feckless scum that have smashed up our towns and cities? They're on the side of the angels, aren't they? Well, regular readers of my contributions here know what journalists have shown to be up to for the best part of the last ten years or more. Lazy, indolent, feckless scum that think nothing of deleting messages from a missing girl's phone, illegally obtaining all manner of records for their sordid little scoops, or hiring private detectives to do their dirty work, sneaking around in celebrities' bins rather than getting out there and doing their job properly.
But at least we have the police, they...er, no. The phone hacking scandal has sown the police, or at least some of its leading figures, to be as corrupt and bent as the old days of the Dirty Squad, if not worse. More eager to go out for lunch with a journalist and get some good PR for their force, and turn a blind eye to their snooping on the very people they are paid to serve and protect, than being out there catching the bad guys.
Then there's the City, the bankers and financiers and traders. The same incompetent fools who ransacked the global economy and landed us in the dire straits we're in, most of whom have kept their comfy, well-remunerated jobs while thousands have had their lives and futures blighted because of the money hurled into a black hole and given back to the bankers to try and dig us out of the very mess they put us in. And seem determined to land us in again. The US political tribes come to an agreement on the debt ceiling, no matter how flawed. They are elected and therefore accountable. They can be voted out. But what happens? The unelected fraudsters, shysters and charlatans that comprise Wall Street decided it's not for them, thanks, and they'll carry on looting and ransacking national economies if you don't mind. The shops that were trashed and smashed by the UK rioters can be rebuilt and restocked quickly. National economies take rather longer, and the consequences far worse. Yet we do nothing to regulate this absurd and unjust and undemocratic system.
This week I have read about rioters wanting rights without responsibility; having no discipline or moral sense; and believing that that the world owes them a living. All of these can be applied easily to our politicians, our journalists, our bankers and our policemen. I have read about pockets of that are sick and broken, and thought 'Yes, our political, press, judicial and financial 'pockets'. Bloody deep pockets they are too.
When such an appalling example is set. When those in power, and those tasked with being a check on that power, behave like they're on all the make, above the law, grabbing all that they can whenever they can and to hell with the consequences, is it any surprise that an underclass, in a society of spectacular, ingrained inequality, in society besieged with scandal and corruption, facing impending financial Armageddon, jumped into such a void and behaved as they did? That doesn't seek to excuse it. There is no excuse for it. But it might explain why so many of them sought to join in the anarchy. After all, everyone else is, why shouldn't they?
Except, everyone else isn't. The rioters, like the bent journalists, the dodgy coppers, the crooked politicians and the immoral traders and dealers, are relatively few in number, far outweighed by the decent and law-abiding. The same people who are donating cash for those who lost their livelihoods; who came out on the streets with brooms to tidy up the mess; who stood and and defended their houses and shops from the thugs; who, in the North, supped on their pints, shook their heads and muttered about the 'damn stupid buggers down south' that created this mess. Those are the people who have stopped this week being a complete loss. I hope there's many of them and they're willing to get us out of this mess and forge a new kind of deal, culture and society that leaves the old discredited ways, and old discredited politicians, journos and bankers, behind.